This is where the Infamous War Novel came in handy.
I’d tried writing and rewriting the damn thing for over a year, between school, family events and hanging out with friends, and after multiple failed attempts, I stumbled upon a brilliant idea — outlining! Okay, I already knew about outlining thanks to my English classes, but bear with me for a moment here.
You see, in September of 1984, a new TV show premiered that changed the way audiences watched television, specifically action-heavy shows like police dramas. Michael Mann’s Miami Vice was a game-changer for a lot of reasons, and not just because of the flashy clothes and the hot sports cars. This was a show with gritty violence, dark storylines, subplots focusing on deeply personal issues…and one hell of a great soundtrack to go along with it all.
It’s par for the course now, but back then, putting a pop song in the background of a scene to amplify the dramatic nuances was a completely new thing for television. Whole scenes would go by with little or no dialogue but tell a gripping story just the same. The “Brother’s Keeper” episode in which Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” drives the entire scene is a key example of this.
I grokked to this linking of sound and image straight away, and went about reverse-engineering it to see how it could be used for the IWN. What I came up with was a synergy of music and ideas, all linked by the main plot. I already had a handful of songs in the back of my head that would inspire the scenes, having tested a few scenes early on just to see if I could do it. I understood how three-act plot arcs worked, even if I hadn’t quite perfected it. I put the two together, and made a playlist of songs and ideas that would create a story with flow, conflict and closure. Thus Caught in the Game, the final version of the IWN was born.
The writing of the IWN helped get rid of some of that personal boredom, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from ditraction. I think the reason why I was feeling this way was because, by the start of 1985, I was really itching to change myself. I was finishing off my not-so-fantastic run of eighth grade, where I’d earned my one failing grade one semester. [In English, ironically enough. I wasn’t doing any of the homework and rarely paid attention in class. Again, it wasn’t that I was heading down a bad road, it was that I was completely fucking bored most of the time.]
I remember one of the last dances they had for the end of the school year, everyone had semi-dressed up, and the deejay played all the latest hits. They played Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and, strangely enough, USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”. Then they threw on Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, and all hell broke loose. The Breakfast Club had just come out not that long before, and despite its R rating, I and everyone else in my class had gone to see it and deemed it the most awesome movie of all time. That movie spoke to each and every one of us that year, and life made a little bit more sense because of it.
I remember feeling a sense of finality during those last few weeks of eighth grade. A bunch of us were so excited to be heading up to high school. We felt it was the turning point where we were finally escaping our childhood and moving on to bigger and better things. The last four years of our primary education were in our sights; we could see that 1989 wasn’t a decade away, but just a short handful of years.
Musically, that’s when I’d made a decision to broaden my horizons. I still loved listening to the early MTV years and the current run of pop and rock, but what seemed really far out and cool in 1982 now seemed a bit old hat, maybe a bit cheesy. The synthetic sounds of new wave were wearing a bit thin, didn’t hold the shine and gloss it once gave. There was more out there — we knew there was more out there, just out of our grasp. The pop stations were not evolving as frequently as they once did. MTV was now firmly ensconced in their own brand of pop sheen and easily digestible hair metal. Rock stations, while doing their best to stay current, were starting to morph into classic rock or hard rock stations, leaving the middle ground behind. It was all about the instant gratification now.
That’s not to say I stopped listening to it. I was still a fan of American Top 40 and still recorded my favorite songs off the radio. In retrospect it’s hard to argue that there were a hell of a lot of great songs that came out in 1985. I had at least a dozen or so ‘radio tapes’ of pop songs made by 1985 and would create at least a few dozen more up until 1987. I even catalogued them on a well-worn steno notebook that I saved for years.* And as much as I loved it, it was still lacking. I wanted something a little more adventurous.
Cue the new generation of alternate programming: AOR.
Album Oriented Rock. Not quite free-form, as that did not really exist as a viable programming format anymore. AOR was its commercial cousin, the station that didn’t have a completely strict and narrow playlist, gave the deejays some freedom to choose a few songs during their shift, and most importantly, dug much deeper into a band’s discography. One would be more inclined to hear Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” instead of “Fool in the Rain” for the umpteenth time.
More to the point, sometimes you wouldn’t even hear pop or rock at all; some days you’d hear the recent generation of folk singers or Dylan’s latest iteration; something blues from Eric Clapton or Joan Armatrading. You’d hear deep tracks from bands as disparate as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Camper Van Beethoven, and Graham Parker. AOR appealed to me in an interesting way; it kind of felt like ‘grown up music’, the stuff you listen to after you’ve grown out of top 40 pop. Or in other words, it was the stuff you listened to if you really wanted to be a serious music listener.
* – As you may well have guessed, I have since taken the track listing of nearly all these radio tapes and created mp3 mixes of them, using my digital collection.